Miracles of miracles. This past weekend, the sandhill cranes flew over Southern Indiana and daffodils sprouted up in some sheltered locations. Talk about environmentally friendly and sustainable life; well, here it is! And to think that I found these signs of hope while attending a two-day workshop on restoring old barns. For me, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana sent an invitation across the state for interested people to join in an adventure in Southern Indiana to learn about old barns. I estimate that well over 100 people answered the call.
We saw and touched some of the oldest trees in existence as they, in their felled state, have linked with other old timbers to shelter farm operations for almost 200 years. Specialists know how to count the rings and find out exactly when the trees begin to grow and when they were hewed to serve man. Senior craftsmen know how to read the hew marks on the sides of old logs. Specialists in engineering read the techniques of placing notches and beams to handle weight and function. Wow! Is it complex?! And I always thought it was just an adult version of the toy Lincoln Logs.
It is estimated that the oldest log structures we found were assembled in 1820. No big fuel-burning machines lifted those 20-inch-wide logs up two stories in the air. It was smart barn builders and willing strong neighbors who created those barns.
Often, an old barn is seen as an outdated, decaying relic on a more modern farmstead. Today’s efficient farm equipment is big and heavy and needs shelters with large openings for entry and high-tech resources for service. Can old barns function today as anything other than reminders of days gone by?
Exploring these barns with experts, we learned that wooden barns constantly have been altered to serve changing needs and opportunities. We were encouraged to differentiate between the cuts made by early hand tools and the later marks of water-powered sawmills and, finally, gas-powered blades. We coupled these findings with the local histories of each county. From these observations, we discovered when, how and why barns were changed to accommodate the latest farm technology. Barns always have been functional work places, and they can change even today to make their old timbers useful.
We toured people’s homes that had once housed livestock and stored hay. We shared our own experiences with using old places for new businesses. We ex-changed the names of products used for restorations and techniques for using them. And through it all, we discovered that wood is always a living thing to be treated as such. It expands, it houses life, it reacts to water and light, and it can be reshaped and reused. And, most of all, we learned that it doesn’t have to end up in a landfill due to wearing out or becoming obsolete. What concrete, metal or plastic can say the same? Wood is the ultimate recyclable material.
As Rudy Christian, a well-respected barn expert from Ohio, led our tours, he explained that ‘We often grow beyond our own knowledge of how life works.’ I wonder if that might be the case with our rapidly changing technological world today. We don’t know the consequences or capacity of most of what we have created. We can’t see the future, but we can certainly read the past. The stories we hear amidst our old barns tell of survival, craftsmanship, cooperation and nature’s life cycles.
Looking to the skies to see the sandhill cranes and to the earth for the first flowers of spring, I see the same reminders of what it takes to endure. It is the middle of March and our earth has turned in the universe. We will repeat all the activities of life that go with this predictable process. You could think of an old, wooden barn as an ecological system in which we experience all of life. Should these icons of our cultural heritage be left to crumble?
Take a second and a third look at those gray structures as you pass by them: then, take a look at yourself. You may find that these old barns are important to you. If so, let’s take action! We need old barns, and they need us. It is getting late, and our last chance is now.